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How One Brand Lets Employees Be RealNovember - 2018


“Wisconsin nice” is real. Maybe you’ve witnessed it.

It’s the person who will talk to anyone while expecting nothing in return. Who can feel a co-worker is having a bad day before they walk in the door. Who believes without exception in the good of their fellow man.

Danelle Hoag is Wisconsin nice. Born and bred in the Badger State, she’s practically a walking smile.

Maybe that’s because for much of her childhood, she had to be.

“My mom raised us as a single parent,” Hoag said. “She was bipolar, so there were a lot of things she couldn’t do for us or with us. It was pretty rough at times, especially since bipolar disease — and mental illness in general — is so misunderstood by most people.”

That made it all the more difficult when Hoag’s grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 1995, at just 13 years old, Hoag became her grandmother’s primary caregiver.

Her mother, meanwhile, dealt with demons of her own. She passed away just one semester into Hoag’s college career. After fighting on behalf of the two strongest women in her life for years, both Hoag’s mother and grandmother died within a year of one another.

Hoag is still fighting.

She works as a member advocate for Network Health, a Wisconsin-based health-insurance provider. Her job is comprised of equal parts detective, attorney, counselor and caregiver.

Given her grandmother was Wisconsin’s first woman to be licensed as an insurance agent and her mother wanted her to work in health care, the role is a perfect union of Hoag’s two biggest influences.

“It’s almost like they wrote the job description just for me,” she said. “Given my own life experiences, I relate on so many levels. I can empathize with our members.”

In essence, Hoag is the voice of those Network Health members.

She’s also one of the voices making up a bold new campaign from Network Health — one that puts the company’s brand in the hands of employees like her.


The noise

A lot of health care advertising looks the same. Blue and white logo. Smiling old people. Babies. Doctors. Machines.

So how could Network Health break through the noise? They enlisted the help of AE Marketing Group, a brand cocreation and customer experience company.

“When AE presented this concept to us, it was a ‘you had me at hello moment’ for me,” said Network Health Chief Administrative Officer Penny Ransom. “Not only is it something new for our industry, but it also suits our brand perfectly.”

“We only went in with one concept,” said AE Marketing Group CEO Brian Walker.

Walker’s plan? Make the employees the focus of the brand.

“I was confident this was the right idea. Everyone talks about humanizing a brand, everyone talks about employee advocacy, but they forget you cannot force it. Employees, like consumers, don’t want to be told how to behave.”

AE Marketing Group was getting at what was most unique about Network Health. It has deep Wisconsin roots, founded there in 1982. And most people who work at Network Health have deep Wisconsin roots themselves. The average employee’s tenure is six years, and 16 percent have worked there for more than 15 years.

Another unique aspect of Network Health is the company’s award-winning movement, CoCreate Wisconsin. Since 2013 this movement, also led by AE Marketing Group, has given customers and non-customers a seat at the design table to create better products, services and experiences together with the health-insurance company. Last year, the cocreation movement was recognized for its ground-breaking approach to consumer engagement in health by the Insight Innovation Exchange.

So just like Network Health tapped into their community to help improve experience, they could tap into the stories of their own employees to better showcase what’s so exceptional about their company.

What they found was something special.

Who’s behind the curtain?


After just a couple weeks of open casting calls, patterns started to emerge among Network Health employees. One major theme is exemplified by Hoag’s story: their backgrounds informed why they went to work everyday.

“We were already building a brand around simplicity,” said Marketing Director Melanie Draheim. “So it was great that we could bring in the emotional part of our work. These are real people who are part of communities all over Wisconsin, and they love what they do.”

“I was struck by the raw emotions and vulnerability demonstrated by their employees,” said Walker. “I was adamant that nothing be scripted. We didn’t try to back into select demographics or customer personas like everyone else does. We just asked questions and listened.”

Jeremy Kroll answered those questions. He collects rare books.

“What I love about books is when I’m exploring a different person through books, you’re learning about somebody,” he said. “And we do the same thing at work. We’re concerned about taking good care of each person.” When he’s not trying to train a 130-pound English Mastiff puppy, he also trains Network Health employees on how to best serve customers.

Jackie Rosen’s father taught her the meaning of a good work ethic. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she regularly meets her dad in Fond Du Lac for a round of golf. They’re learning together. Loser buys lunch.

Rosen works as a recruiter.

“What I look for is that team player. That they’re willing to go that extra mile, not only for their coworkers but for our members,” she said. “Because at the end of the day our members are what we’re here for.”

Yvonne Marrow is an oncology nurse, case manager and single mom. She found running as a way to help cope emotionally with being a support system for some of Network Health’s most vulnerable members. She recently completed her first ultramarathon.

“I was recently leading a CoCreation Lab at Network Health and a cancer patient mentioned Yvonne as critical to his recovery process,” said Walker. “I had just seen her that very same day. From the minute I met Yvonne, I knew she was special.”

AE Marketing Group shot documentary film and photography over nineteen days with Network Health employees in Milwaukee, Fond Du Lac, Oshkosh and Appleton. And they didn’t script a thing.

They just asked questions: not about work, but about life.

Why it matters

When telling the stories of Network Health employees, viewers will notice there’s no phone number. There’s no call to action. No kitschy slogan. It’s just the story.

“And that’s all you need,” Walker says.

“We are using these personal stories as a way to say ‘this is the type of company I want to do business with,’” he said. “We let that speak for itself.”

And it has. The initial reaction among Network Health employees confirmed as much. Content Marketing Coordinator Cassie Ashman has sat near Hoag for years, but never knew about her background.

“She’s just a ray of sunshine,” Ashman said. “When I read her story I cried. I had no idea that was her personal experience. She’s so good with the members and so great as a mom.”

She sees the difference Hoag makes every day.

“She comes into contact with members when they’re at their most critical point in their lives,” she said. “Our customer service treats our members like a community and our members internalize that.”

In an industry known for being opaque, cold and uncaring, sharing stories like Hoag’s can show members and nonmembers alike how Network Health sets itself apart from giants like Humana or United Healthcare.

Ashman wasn’t the only staff member who cried in seeing the first documentary videos. Ransom planned ahead and brought a box of tissues.

“Half the room was crying. In fact, we shot on location for nineteen days and I can’t recall day, when either a Network Health associate or crew member didn’t choke up,” said Walker.


Ransom summarized it best: “We set out to humanize health insurance by lifting the curtain and showcasing our employees sharing very personal stories and how their personal beliefs fold into their work lives. I’d say we more than succeeded. We have a campaign that will boost our brand’s position and has the added bonus of reminding all 440 employees of the great experiences they create every day.”

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